“Who told us Denmark was flat???”
I am shouting with all the breath I can muster. My face is turning red, as we push our heavy bikes up a steep hill. It’s not the first hill we’ve encountered. Since we stepped off the night train from Holland, this part of western Denmark has introduced itself as one long strip of undulating countryside – contrary to what most people told us about the supposedly flat landscape.
It’s windy too. Surrounded by the North and Baltic Seas, the peninsula of Jutland never fails to raise a breeze.
After nearly a year of living in Holland, we’re somewhat used to the wind. But the hills. Oh dear. The first day ends up being one long struggle to propel our bikes forward. We question our sanity after lunch, when we add more weight to our panniers, in the form of 2 bottles of beer.
“Why are we doing this?” I mumble a few hills later.
Many people have asked us this, and we don’t have much of an answer, other than it sounded like fun. Positive reports from other cyclists, along with a vague notion of Denmark’s trendy bicycle culture and its network of bike paths, convinced us that a trip here would be an experience to remember.
When we get on the train and see that it’s going not just to Denmark but also places like Minsk and Moscow, we add exotic to our list of expectations.
Just 60km in, and Denmark has certainly fulfilled the “experience” part of the bargain. By the time we get to our campsite we’re tired, hungry and wondering whatever convinced us to take up this bike touring lark. “Oh Denmark, you are really hard work,” we moan. And then, we see the view. All is instantly forgiven.
From our lofty perch, the tiny bay of Kalvø spreads out in front of us. Far in the distance, the fjord is filled with boats bobbing in the last rays of sunshine. Beside the patch of grass where we’ll sleep, a few cows graze quietly. It’s an idyll, and best of all, we have it entirely to ourselves.
We’ve just discovered Denmark’s biggest treasure for bike tourists: a network of 1,000 campsites that are only open to walkers and cyclists. Run by the forestry service, municipalities and local people, they’re almost always free (sometimes you pay €3 for access to luxuries like a shower). But it’s not just the budget-friendly aspect that makes us fall completely in love with these rustic places.
Over the next 2 weeks, we stay in 11 of these campsites. We sleep in a forest, where a small cabin is thoughtfully provided, complete with a wood stove, for shelter on rainy days. One night we pitch up beside one of Denmark’s oldest mills, and fall asleep watching the swallows swoop around the thatched roof. The next evening, we are alone by the Baltic Sea. In almost all of these campsite we have water, ready-chopped firewood and comfortable wooden shelters. We enjoy the log huts so much that our tent rarely makes an outing.
Perhaps it’s low season, or perhaps we are just lucky, but despite the beauty and comforts of these places, we never share a campsite with anyone else and we never pay a penny for the privilege.
Our love of Denmark grows even more with the many bakeries we discover.
Choosing between cinnamon rolls, meringues dipped in chocolate, fruit-topped muffins and hearty loaves of rye bread becomes the day’s big decision. Sometimes we stop twice a day to indulge. Calories and cost be damned. This is a cultural experience not to be missed.
Before long, we settle into a routine. Rising early with the summer sun, we sip a cup of coffee, eat a bowl of muesli and then slowly toddle off around 8:30am to explore the Danish countryside.
We never go far without passing someone selling garden vegetables, and we pick up a bag of beans or sweet cherry tomatoes for snacking. There’s plenty of honey on offer too. And when there’s nothing to buy, we pick blackberries and wild plums for free in the late summer sunshine. Our panniers bulge.
Lunchtimes are typically spent at a picnic table in a small fishing harbour or park. For a break from the cycling, we stop at a few of the many interesting museums along the way.
The Aalestrup bicycle museum is high on our list, along with the gallery of Skagen Painters and the many ancient burial sites. The Frøslev Camp is both intriguing and sad: a compelling witness to Denmark’s experience of World War II.
On the west coast, we summon up the energy for a bonus hike to see the Rubjerg Knude Lighthouse. Built in 1900, it has since been completely engulfed by sand. Only a small part of the tower now sticks up above the dunes, where just 10 years ago there was still a museum and café.
When there are no official attractions or bakeries to distract us, there are other cyclists. Dozens of them. One day we even pass 3 young men on skateboards, carrying huge backpacks. They look tired, and it’s only 10am. We decide to stick to bicycles.
This steady stream of cyclists, as well as the local love of cycling, helps to save us from vacation disaster when my bike decides to break down. With plenty of demand, you’re rarely far from a bike shop in Denmark. They can be busy in the peak summer season, but we are lucky. It takes just one afternoon of waiting to get a bottom bracket replaced, so we can hit the road again.
The beer is another high point. Andrew is a big fan of dark brews, and he’s spoiled for choice. Every night we sample at least two different stouts or ales. There is one particularly phenomenal chocolate stout from a brewery on the island of Bornholm that prompts us to write “2011: bike trip to Svaneke Bryghus” in our notebook.
It’s only the weather that brings us crashing back down to earth. When it is good, it’s really good with stunning blue skies and glorious sun lighting up the wheat fields. But when it is bad, it is just plain ugly. When wet, the bike paths (which often follow dirt tracks through the woods) ooze mud and become nearly impossible to cycle.
One day we are pummelled with so much rain that our fingers wrinkle like prunes. Happily, as we find out that night, the B&Bs in Denmark tend to be more like holiday cottages, and often come with access to a washer and dryer, so cleaning our mud splattered clothes is no problem. The day after a rainstorm looks much better with fresh, dry socks.
It takes us two weeks of reasonably solid riding to reach our goal of biking from the German border, up to the town of Skagen at the tip of Jutland (where we dip our toes in the Baltic and North Seas at the same time) and then back again.
The end of our trip is marked by an untimely flat tire, just as we are rushing against the last light to catch our train back to Holland.
In the end, this small delay doesn’t matter. The train is predicted to be 5 hours late and we doze in a small waiting room until it thunders down the platform unexpectedly at 3am. It is a rude awakening, because we’d been told to expect nothing until 4:30am. We scurry to gather sleeping bags, mats and the contents of our panniers in our arms, desperately trying to get everything on board before the train departs.
As we breathlessly throw the last bit of equipment on board, the whistle blows and the train starts to move. It’s a chaotic end to a wonderful trip and as a result we don’t sleep a wink on the way home. Instead, we get out our map of Denmark and start planning next year’s return journey.